Featuring: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Australian release date: Currently screening
The opening sequence in a film is as important as the first sentence of a novel. When you read “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” at the beginning of Anna Karenina, you know you will be taken from this generalisation to examine the particulars of a specific unhappy family. Margaret’s opening sequence – a montage of New York street scenes showing swarms of people and occasionally singling one person out with light, focus or framing – announces its themes immediately. And what themes! This richly layered film is about nothing less than the human condition, and encompasses ideas about relationships, maturation, culpability, and the potential for catharsis through art.
That sequence had me hooked straightaway. The promo blurb hadn’t looked promising. Here it is:
Lisa (Paquin) is a student in New York City who feels that she inadvertently played a role in a traffic accident that claimed a woman’s life. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalising her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course with the realities and compromises of adult life.
Sounds like a horrible angsty teen drama, yes? But. That opening sequence, with its restrained, dispassionate gaze at modern humanity, alerted me to the fact that this film would aim seriously high. And it did, in a brilliant ensemble drama with a tour de force performance by Anna Paquin at its centre.
Anna Paquin as Lisa
The literary reference earlier is apt: Margaret is a cinematic bildungsroman (i.e. a well-written angsty teen drama) that does more than nod to literary antecedents. Its title comes from the beautiful Gerard Manly Hopkins poem about a young girl’s apperception of mortality, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child”. The poem is read aloud in Lisa’s class – she’s a scholarship student at a high school heavily populated with rich brainy Jewish kids – and its central message informs the narrative.
The class is also studying King Lear and in a hilarious scene where they discuss the lines “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport”, the teacher is driven to quash an aberrant reading by a wilful student with a firm, “You’re wrong!” This raised appreciative chuckles from the teachers, ex-teachers, parents and friends of nerdy teenagers in the audience. This scene and others showed that Lisa had access to all the academic smarts she needed, as well as her own considerable reserves, to deal with the experience she has had.
Intelligence and knowledge, however, just don’t crack it in situations like this – specifically, in this story, where Lisa is culpably involved in a train of events that leads to a woman dying horrifically and bloodily in her arms after being hit by a bus. It’s wisdom you need, but that commodity seems to be in short supply wherever she turns.
And here is where this film shines, in the large cast of characters who inevitably are not fully fleshed out but are brilliantly rendered in impressionistic scenes that suggest entire chapters of backstory. And they’re ALL struggling with their own dramas.
Lisa’s parents are separated. Her father lives on the west coast, only a phone call away, but he is self-absorbed, and his advice to her revolves around what she has to do to get a boyfriend. He abandons a planned family holiday when the arrangements (which he has left to his new partner to handle) fall into disarray.
Her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a successful Broadway actress, is doing the hard yards of raising their two children alone, and making tentative steps towards establishing a new relationship with an admirer, Ramon (Jean Reno), who seems a bit boring at first but is gradually and delicately revealed as a kind-hearted man and loving father. Joan tries to talk with Lisa, but is rebuffed for all the wrongheaded and accurately observed reasons teenage girls have; Lisa gives a couple of powerhouse speeches expressing her anguish, but what’s a single mum with professional obligations to do? Joan throws her own tantrum when Lisa offhandedly tells her she is planning to go and live with her father, which is probably just the reaction Lisa was hoping to get.
Still traumatised and seeking comfort, Lisa reaches out to her peers (resulting in one of the funnier sex-scenes you’re likely to see), to her teachers (“Oh no,” said the woman behind me as young, handsome Mr Aaron [Matt Damon] succumbed to Lisa’s advances), and to Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the best friend of the dead woman. Emily eventually dishes up some unpalatable home truths, accusing Lisa of “starring” in the drama of her friend’s death. Hmm, seems you can’t get away from moms.
Mr Aaron and Lisa take their teacher-student relationship out of the classroom
Then there’s the law. Might justice and reason yet prevail in Lisa’s quest for control over her existential dilemma? Well, what do you reckon? The court case she pursues to inculpate the bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), felt a bit like a narrative red herring, but it adds to the rich fabric of Lisa’s disillusionment with the adult world, and leads her to a greater understanding of her own motives.
In the end it’s the arts, and opera in particular – explicitly discussed and depicted on a few separate occasions – that enable a kind of catharsis for Lisa, in a scene that is breathtaking for its emotional honesty (but this is acting!) and for the wordless expression of that which is inexpressible about what touches the human spirit.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that this film has been in production for years – since 2005, in fact, when Anna Paquin was much closer in age to the character she plays. At 150 minutes, it’s long, and apparently has been cut down to this length for release. Evidence remains in a couple of awkward edits that suggested missing scenes. I would happily have sat through more; a script that is so novelistic in scope and operatic in reach needs plenty of space.
The end of the film is a satisfying culmination of the story and themes, and I felt exactly as I do after reading a great book: I wanted to go back and start again to savour the experience again. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan deserves full credit for this production, which is the best thing I’ve seen all year.
After all that, I should recount that I saw this with my eighteen-year-old daughter, and as the credits rolled, we turned to each other and spoke simultaneously thus:
Me: “That was fantastic!”
Daughter: “Well that was crap!”
Later she explained that she found the character of Lisa so unlikeable that it coloured her perception of the film. And it’s true, Lisa is a prickly, sometimes brash young woman and her behaviour exhibits the inconsistencies that are consistent with being a human, er, being. I didn’t have to like Lisa to love this film.
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